NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Jeff Zucker's grand experiment in redefining broadcast-network prime time starts tonight at 10 p.m., when Jay Leno takes the stage for the first time on his new show that is not "The Tonight Show."
Joining him on stage will be Jerry Seinfeld, a comedian who anchored one of NBC's longest running most-lucrative nights in modern TV history, Thursday's Must See TV. The powerhouse of a night propelled NBC though the late '80s and '90s by relying on such scripted hits as "Cheers," "Friends," "Seinfeld," "Frasier" and long-running drama "ER." Current Thursday night fare like "30 Rock" and "The Office" get kudos from critics, but don't draw in the masses. Also joining Jay this week are Kanye West, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Tom Cruise, Miley Cyrus and Halle Berry. We'll see if that's a line-up worthy of challenging CBS's "CSI" franchise and other crime procedurals that have dominated at 10 p.m. [UPDATE: Lucky for Leno that Kanye West is one of the most buzzed about people on Monday thanks to his ungracious remarks after Taylor Swift won her MTV Video Music Award. Maybe we'll get a nice live apology from him tonight.]
NBC's Thursday night hasn't been must-see TV in quite some time, and NBC's 10 p.m. hour has been more than a little challenged in the ratings department on every night. So the pressure is on "The Jay Leno" show to not only draw a crowd on Thursdays, but on every night. And it would be nice if Leno could have a hit without hurting NBC's other profitable franchise, "The Tonight Show," which is now in the hands of Leno successor Conan O'Brien.
Leno and his handlers have been careful to note that "The Jay Leno Show" is not going to be "The Tonight Show" an hour and a half earlier, although it will include some notable Leno gags, like "Jaywalking" and riffing off news headlines. But he's also hired a cadre of comedians to do what sound like segments akin to "The Daily Show," with NBC news anchor Brian Williams pitching in with a skit along the lines of "News Not Good Enough for NBC." Leno and NBC will also happily wave the flag for any advertiser that pays them to during the show.
Both are moves to get out ahead of criticism that a show likely to draw a late-night rating at 10 p.m. is just not the same as a 10 p.m. drama pulling a "CSI"-like rating. Dramas, however, are expensive to produce. Live comedy is not. So NBC has essentially lowered the bar. Leno doesn't have to be the next "ER" -- it just has to beat its budget. Welcome to the future of broadcast.